Music Business Insider: Q&A: Tim Westergren

Pandora maps the musical genome.
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FIG. 1: Tim Westergren is the founder of Pandora. Photo: Rafael Fuchs, courtesy Pandora

If you haven't yet been to Pandora.com, get ready to be impressed. Go there, join (for free), type in the name of an artist or song, and the site will automatically create a personalized radio “station” for you that plays similar music. The site will play music continuously and allow you to rate the individual songs to further refine your preferences. It does this using the Music Genome Project, a rating system for songs involving a huge number of variables that are entered into a database by trained musicians enlisted to analyze music.

Although Pandora is a consumer Web site, it does offer musicians the chance to get their songs into its system. You can submit your music to the site and, if accepted, it will be categorized alongside all the others. When somebody initiates a “station” with an artist whose music is similar to yours, or with a song similar to one of your songs, your music will be placed in the pool of songs that are recommended and played by Pandora's engine. I recently spoke with Pandora's founder, Tim Westergren, about how it all works (see Fig. 1).

Describe the Music Genome Project.

It's an enormous musical taxonomy. Hundreds of thousands of songs have been analyzed by a trained musician for close to 400 musical attributes per song. So it's kind of like musical DNA, and that powers the way Pandora creates its radio stations. When you're a listener, what you do on Pandora is type in the name of an artist or a song that you like, and the Music Genome Project will look [in its database] at that song's sort of musical DNA, and then go look for musical neighbors and start sequencing songs.

How do the songs get classified?

We have a team of about 50 trained musicians. These are folks who all have a very long background in music theory. They spend each day with headphones on, listening to music, and capturing and describing every minute detail of every song. Everything from melody, harmony, rhythm, and form to instrumentation, the sound of the voice, and the vocal harmony — every aspect of the song. They score [the songs] piece by piece, so the voice, as an example, is scored on about 30 attributes, which include things like the use of vibrato, the use of falsetto, the range, and the different timbral elements. They look at all the kind of primary colors in a way that gives that vocalist his or her sound.

All the other instruments are analyzed as well?

Right. We basically have on this taxonomy, this Genome Project, a feel for just about everything you could imagine.

If, for example, they were breaking down the drum part on a funk song, they would be notating the syncopated rhythms in the drum parts?

Sure. The rhythm has a whole set of attributes that describe it — the use of syncopation, the meter, the rhythm, the level of swing, all the different elements. The idea, in a way, is that you could literally just look at the page where these scores are and hear the song in your head.

How much do you take genre into account when you're analyzing a song?

We don't really deal with genre. So for us, a genre is a construction of these many attributes. What makes something alternative rock, what makes something country, classic country, folk country, blues country? We try not to deal with the genre; we try to deal with the elements that determine that, in a way.

In other words, if you analyze the component parts of a song, you'll know what genre it is based on the results?

As you know, genres change over time. The definitions are very fluid. The nice thing about this kind of methodology is that we can accommodate new genres as they come in. Like, electronica sprouts a new genre every week. And we can handle it because we're not dealing in preset notions of genre.

There are some different attributes in your analysis of jazz, right?

A wider palette of instruments and more detail on the soloing, which is such a key part of jazz.

What percentage of the popular recorded-music base that's available in the United States do you have cataloged at this point?

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FIG. 2: The Pandora user interface lets you set up “stations” based on artists or songs that you like.

It depends a little bit on how you define “popular.” We have everything that's ever been on Billboard since it started back in the '50s. But that's not that much music. In sheer number terms, in the North American catalog for a really complete collection, it's probably about 4 million songs. And we have about 500,000, which is about 10 percent.

Do you have classical music in your database?

We don't have classical, but we're going to be launching that soon.

So listeners go to your Web site, sign up, type in a song or artist, and the site starts playing songs?

It will start playing a radio station (see Fig. 2). It's really like a radio station. Currently, [the site's] mostly being used on a computer, but it's now also available on a [mobile] phone. So the idea for the long run is for [it] to be a radio.

In the mobile phone space, which carriers are you on?

So far, just Sprint. But there are more to come.

What's the business model? Do you have advertising on the site?

It's advertising supported.

What about the Internet-radio royalty issue that has been in the news? How is that affecting your business?

It's very directly affecting us. The new rates, if they go into effect, will put us out of business.

How much more per song is it than it used to be?

It's a tripling of our rates. That's pretty disastrous. And the same goes for every Internet radio company. A few months ago, when this decision came down, everybody in the Webcasting community, including us, thought it was Armageddon. And it looked like we were all going to go out of business. But what happened was that there was this massive public uprising. The Webcasters appealed to their listeners and got well over a million people to call their congressperson. It was such an overwhelming public response that Congress intervened and basically said, “You've got to negotiate a better number.”

Are you confident that something you can live with will get worked out?

Let's say I'm cautiously optimistic.

When do you expect a decision to come down?

It's really hard to say. The timing of it depends on how the RIAA responds to it.

So the record industry feels like it's not getting enough compensation for the use of its music?

Right.

But they are getting compensation, just at a lower level than broadcast radio?

No. You pay two forms of licensing — a publishing and a performance royalty. There are three forms of radio: terrestrial, satellite, and Internet. Each of us pays the same publishing rate, about 3 or 4 percent of revenue. But for the performance fee, we pay ten times the amount that satellite pays, and broadcast radio doesn't pay it at all. It's really, really uneven — unequal. It's discriminatory.

Do you have a lot of indie musicians along with established stars in your database?

In our collection of half a million songs are 40,000 artists. Seventy percent of our artists are not affiliated with a major record label.

How does one go about getting music submitted?

There are instructions on our Web site. Artists can just mail their stuff in. And there's no prerequisite for getting included. You don't need to have had any kind of commercial success at all — you could be a hobbyist. The only criteria is that it's got to be good.

So there is a gatekeeper that they must get past?

That's the one point in the process where we actually have an editorial voice, when we decide who we think is good. And that's what the trained musicians are partly for, since they play that role. The real power of this is that if you're an unknown, this is the only radio where you'll get played alongside artists you sound just like. It's a great promotional tool, and that's why I started this. I used to be a musician myself; I used to play in rock bands. I did the whole “live-in-a-van” thing. It's why I'm doing it.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.